Most of my readers will be vaguely aware that the World Cup started yesterday, but it's hard to explain how huge a deal it is here in England. Everybody has English flags flying from their car antennas and out their windows. Stores are full of cheesy product tie-ins and the streets were empty for today's first England game of the cup. The World Cup really is the only truly worldwide sporting event. Football's the only sport that has strong professional followings in every inhabited continent and the estimated cumulative TV audience for the month is 33 billion. In what other event could Tunisia, Ecuador, Italy, Iran and more all send quality teams out for?
The first day of the Cup (Friday) featured a game between hosts Germany and Costa Rica and one between Poland and Ecuador. Blanca, Matt and I first went to the Royal Standard to check them out, but it was already full of drunken Brits for the 5PM kickoff. We found a table with a view of one of the screens, but there was a guy there in an England t-shirt blowing nonstop on a kazoo — I don't know what he was on about since it was Germany vs. Costa Rica. We decided to just go to Matt's house to make some dinner and watch the games without the hooligans. We fired up a pretty daecent chicken tikka masala and watched the Germans dismantle the Ticos and then the upset Ecuador victory over Poland.
Today a few people from work and some other hangers on got together for a little five-on-five match this morning before the games started. I haven't actually played football since I was about 12, but it was a good time. Some of the other guys were really good, but it was enough of a free-for-all that I managed to have fun and occasionally execute a good pass in the midst of being burned about a million times by Jordana's husband, Tom. It's been really hot here lately, so we were all pretty sweaty and gross by the time we finished and broke up to go home and shower before meeting at the White Horse for the 2PM England - Paraguay match. When I got there the place was outrageously packed (think Boston bars during the ALCS). I looked around but couldn't find my friends and I wasn't about to stand up in a hot, sweaty bar with a crappy view of the TV to watch a sporting event that I don't care that much about.
I went outside and pulled my keys out of my pocket as I walked toward my bike. At this point a dude and his girlfriend in an Audi in the parking lot yelled, "Hey are you leaving" (in the same tone of voice you'd ask somebody who was heading out of the Cask & Flagon in the 1st inning of a Sox game).
Somewhat confused (why would they really care?) I said, "Yeah."
"Where are you parked?" the girl asked.
I pointed sheepishly to my bike, "Sorry mate."
I hopped on to pedal home and check out the game in my house when suddenly the bar exploded in a roar that nearly knocked me off my bike. Clearly England had scored almost immediately after the game began. I got home and it turned out that the Brits had scored on a deflected Beckham corner kick in the 3rd minute. I made some lunch and watched the first half, but it was fairly boring after that first score. I was tired from running around all morning, so I took a nap during the second half, when the Paraguayans evidently played well but couldn't score.
I was rejuvenated after my nap, so I started making dinner and put on the Sweden - Trinidad & Tobago game. Of all the first round matches this one had the longest odds. T&T were playing in the Cup for the first time and were the smallest country ever to qualify. Sweden is a football powerhouse even in Europe and some pundits had predicted a 6-0 domination. As the first half developed Sweden dominated playing time and the ball was nearly always in the Islanders' half of the field. The Swedes made attack after attack, but just couldn't score. The T&T keeper (who was put in the lineup two minutes before kickoff due to a warmup injury to the starting keeper) made a couple of really awesome saves. At half time it was still nil-nil and the commentators were talking about how impressive it was that the Islanders had made it this far without allowing a goal. They pretty much all thought they'd run out of steam soon, though, and couldn't keep off the Swedish attack.
The second half started with T&T defender Avery John getting a red card for his second reckless tackle and being sent off. Now with the underdogs playing a man short it seemed inevitable that the Swedes would pull off a win. While T&T was indeed pinned back for nearly the whole of the second half, they played some amazing defense and killed time to deny the Swedes a chance to score. On one of the few occasions when T&T attacked their striker fired a beautiful shot from a tough angle that thumped straight into the crossbar. Six inches lower and this could've been a historic upset.
Earlier this week I was listening to some NPR coverage of the Cup and the English guy they were interviewing was trying to explain how a 0-0 draw can be an incredibly interesting match. Of course the American host of the show was making fun of him, but it's really amazing how exciting it can be. The first round of the Cup is round-robin within your group and you get 3 points for a win and 1 for a draw. Even a draw for T&T was thus a huge victory and their fans (way, way outnumbered by Swedes) were going absolutely nuts toward the end of the game, willing their boys to hold off Sweden. I couldn't help but get excited at each Swedish chance that they foiled to clear the ball out and try to catch their breath.
When the game ended in a zero-zero tie, I was shocked at how satisfying a sport-viewing experience it had been. I couldn't muster the endurance to watch the Argentina - Ivory Coast match, but I'm pretty psyched for the next month (although I'll actually be back in America for the final - natch). I will have to go out and watch some of the games in pubs though, to fully experience the hooliganism. USA takes on the Czech Republic on Monday - get jacked and pumped.